Germany until the rise of the NAZIs (1933) was one of the European countries with the richest traditions of Jewish life. It was also the European country that in the 19th century emancipated Jews and provided an environment in which Jews could prosper. It was to Germany and America that Polish and Russian Jews fled whem Tsar Alexander III unleased pogroms in the late 19th century. Today Germany is today viewed through the lens of the Holocaust. This should not obscure the long a rich tradition of the Jewish peopkle in Germany. It is thus an irony of history that the Holocaust of the Jewish people was launched in Germany and devestated European Jewery. Jews have lived in Germany for 16 centuries. German Jewish tradition is known as Ashkenaz Jewry as opposed to Sephardic Jewery from Spain and Portugal.
The Roman Empire provided a legal and economic system in which Jews and others could move. Many Jews were brought as slaves to Rome and other Roman cities with the supresion of the Jews in Palestine by Roman armies. Gradually Jews as freemen moved throughout the Empire. It is not known when the first Jews reached Germany. Historiand note Jews in Germany by early 4th century AD. A Jewish from the 4th century has been found in Cologne. Virtually nothing is known about early Jewish communities in Germany and other Euroopean countries. Moew historical evidence is available by the 8th century. There is evidence that Jewish ciommunities were flourishing among the evolving German communities along the Rhine River. There is little evidence od serious anti-Semitism during the early Medieval era. Jews and Christians appear to have lived in relative harmony. Jews seem to have been fully integrated in local society. There do not appear to have been severe restrictions on Jews and Jewish life. Jews are known to have held public offices. Nor were there economic restrictions. Jews owned land and persued trades wiuthout legal restrictions. The spoke German and other local languages and commonly had German names. There are reports of some Germans converting to Judaism. This relative harmonious situation changed in the lateer Medieval era. Jewissh communities throughout Europe were desimated with the surge of religious feeling that accompznied the Crusades.
Germany did not coalese into a nation state as it emerged from the Medieval era. This occurred in large measure because the conflict between the pope and emperor restrained the power if the emperor. Rather several important and many minor principalities emerged. The two most important became Austria and Prussia. Severe repression of Jews continued in many states and eras. Jews suffered terribly during the Refoirmation and 30 Years War. Martin Luther after launching the Reformation attempted to convert the Jews. When he failed, he denounced them which was taken as a justification for repression and physical attacks. Jews in many areas were expelled. In other areas burdensome taxes were imposed. The rise of nationalism in the 17th century had an impact on German Jews. Rulers began to look on building state power as religious passions cooled. Monarchs less influenced by religious concerns began to see Jews as an assett. Rulers in various Germnan states and principalities (Prussia, Hamburg, Bradenburg, Pomerania, and others) became more acceopting of Jews. There were restrictions imposed upon Jews which varied from sr=tate to state. Basically these restrictiobns were designed to extract as much value as possible and limit competition with important sections of the state and that the Jewish pooulation not beconme too large. Taxes were imposed. Limits were place on economic activity. Jewish life was restricted in various ways (family life, marriage, residency and communal affairs). One historian points to the philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, who as a boy of 14 entered Berlin through a gate restricted livestock and Jews. [Elon] Even so attacks and wholescale expullsions became less common as legal systems became more established. he situation of the Jews varied among the different German states although there were many similarities. No where in Germany Jews enfranchized in Germany until the French Revolution and Napoleonic armies began to introduce liberal ideas.
Germany had one of the most assimilated Jewish communities in Europe. They received full citizenship rights in Imperial Germany. Not all Germans agreed with this, but Chancellor Bismarck did. Gemany had a histoical tradition of anti-semitism. Such sentiment increased as a wave of Russian Jews fleed to Germany in the late 19th century because of pogroms and a variety of government anti-Jewish measures. (Many Russian Jews fleeing Tsarist oppression also came to America.) Germany was not in the 19th century an unusually anti-Semitic country. Anti-Semitism certainly existed as it did throughout Europe. Pogroms in Russia drove Jews into Germany as it did to America. In Germany the influx of Eastern European Jews stimulated anti-Semitism thought, but no overt action against the fully enfranchised Jewish community.
Germny's loss in World War I came as a great shock to the German people. Germany had succeeded in knocking Russia out of the War. The Bolseviks that took power in Russia were forced to sign a humiliating peace at Breast-Litosk (1918). The collapse of the Eatern Front allowed Germany to transfer powerful forces west and launch a powerful offensive which crossed the Marne and almost reached Paris. The Kaiser's Govrnment had, however, badly miscalculated and the declaration of unconditionl submaine warfare had brought America into the War. Thus by the time The Germans lost their 1918 offensive, an American Army of more than a million men was waiting for them in France. The German offensive failed and backed with the new Americn Army, the Allied launched a massive offensive and the German Western Front collapsed. The German General Staff informed the Kaiser that they could no longer ensure his security ad he fled to the Netherlands. The General Staff asked for an armistace, but the Allies refused to deal with them. Only with a new provisional Republican Government asked for an armistace id the Allies accept. The guns fell silent on November 11. Many Germans were stunned and did not understand why after so much sacrifice that the War could have been lost, especially as victory had seemed so close in the Spring of 1918. The fact that Germany was not occupied and it was a civilian and not military government that asked for the armistace gave rise to a big lie--that Germany had been stabbed in the back by republicns led by socialists and Jews. After Germany's defeat in World War I, virulent anti-semitism was a major feature of many right-wing nationalist groups.
Many German Jews were fully assimilated. Jews were full citizens of theweimar Republic. Some had converted to Christiaity or married Christians. Many saw themselves as Germans who happened to be Jews. Few attended Jewish schools. There were, however, schools that Jews avoided, either because of the ant-Semetic beliefs of the staffs or students. Anti-Semitism in Germany grew in Germany after World War I in the aftermath of defeat and economic crisis.
Te reasons for Germany's defeat in the War were not well understood, in part because only months before the Armustace, Germany with the defeat of Russia looked to be on the brunk of victory. The economic disaaster resulting from the War combuned with hyper inflation (1923) ruined the middle-class which created many recruits for the right-wing parties among those who would have been expected to support democracy. This combined with the generalized resentment of the preceived injustices of the Versailles Treaty resulted in an often irrational outlook that caused many to blame Jews for the plight of Germany. A variety of moderizing trends in the economy were blamed on the Jews by many adversely affected. Highly vissible Jewish successes in retail alientated less successful operations including small workshops and traders. The increasing commercialization of agriculture was seen by others as a "Jewish plot" to destroy the livlihood of hard-working farmers. The prominent role of Jewish mussicians and artists in Weimar culture also contributed to anti-Semitism.
The highly nationalistic German right-wing in particular adopted an increasingly shrill anti-Semtism. Hitler and the NAZIs were not the only one to seize upon the growing anti-Semitism, but they did it more effectively than the other right-wing parties. The NAZIs were at first considerd a fringe party, not representing the brelief of most Germans. German Jews were disturbed with the rising populaity of the NAZIs, but did not believe they would ever gain power. Few in the 1920s had a preminition of what was to come. Some did especially by the early 1930s when the NAZIs had become a major political party. But even the most pessimistic had no idea of the enormity of the dissaster that was about to befall them. One Jewish author growing up in Austria and Berlin writes, "We were on the Titanicand everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg. The only uncertainty was about what would happen when it did." [Hobsbawm] Hitler appears to have realized from an early point
that especially flagarant anti-Semitism and violence directed at the Jews alienated more voters than it attracted. The NAZIs managed to seize power after emphazizing other aspects of their message. The outbreak of the Depression (1929) provided further converts to the NAZI message. While many voters were attracted to the NAZIs anti-Semitic message, many others voted for the NAZIs in spite of its anti-Semitism, not because of it.
A typical NAZI view was expressed by Arthur Seyss-Inquart who ctively participated in the persucution and eventual murder of Jews in Austria, Poland, and the Netherlands. In a speech before a NAZI group in Amsterdam on March 13, 1941 he stated, "The Jews are the enemy of national socialism and the National Socialistic Reich. From the moment of their emancipation, their methods were directed to the annihilation of the common and moral worth of the German people and to re-place national and responsible ideology with international nihilism. The fatal meaning of Judaism became completely clear to the German people during the years of the World War. It was really they, who stuck the knife in the back of the German army which broke the resistance of the Germans, and in the year 1918, it was they who wanted to dissolve and decompose all national tradition and also moral and religious beliefs of the German people. The Jews for us are not Dutch-men. They are those enemies with whom we can neither come to an armistice nor to peace. This applies here, if you wish, for the duration of the occupation. Do not expect an order from me which stipulates this, except regulations concerning police matters. We will beat the Jews wherever we meet them, and those who join them must bear the consequences. The Fuehrer declared that the Jews have played their final act in Europe, and therefore they played their final act." [Nuremberg Tribunal]
Germany was becoming ungovernable because of the strength of the NAZIs and Communists in the Reichstag and growing street violence. An aging President Hindenburg was advised that Hitler could be controlled in a coalition government. President Hindenburg dislikes Hitler, but appoints him Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933. After becoming Reich Chancellor, Hitler quickly moves to seize control of the Government. The Reichstag fire provides the pretext for mass arrests of Communists andother political opponents. The worst features of the right wing anti-Semetic groups soon became German government policy.
The Holocaust of German and other European Jews began in Germany. It is not clear that Hitler had fully conceptualized the Holocaust at the time he took power. He clearly wanted the Jews to be excluded from German life and eventually expelled from Germany. Within weeks of taking power actions proceeded against Jews. The most visable were the boycotts of German shops and businesses and the buning of books by Jewish and other authors to which the NAZIs objected. Less vissible were extra-legal actions against political opponents and individul Jews. These actions were gradually escalated by a series of actions such as firing Jewish civil servants. The ability of the NAZIs to act against the Jews was greatly expanded by the Nurrenberg Race Laws in 1935 which deprived Jews of German citizenship. This enabled the NAZI to proceed with the isolation of the Jews from German society. Increasingly Jews began leaving Germany. The Anchluss with Austria in 1938 brought large numbers of Jew within Greater Germany. Kristallnacht later in 1938 made it clear to everyone that the NAZIs were not going to limit actions against Jews to the legal system, even the legal system they created to persecute the Jews. Within a year, Hitler launched World War II and then proceeded under cover of the War to launch the Endlösung o "Final Solution of the Jewish Question".
Elon, Amos. The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 (New York, Metropolitan Books, 2002).
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